Do Japanese RPGs need good stories?

This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs have to offer.

I'm going to sum up all of the cliches about Final Fantasy XIII in one sentence: "The battle system is pretty good, but the story is laughable." Gamasutra's Christian Nutt even went so far as to compare the direction of the series to the Star Wars prequels. I wish I could disagree.

For all that though, I'm willing to stick out Final Fantasy XIII-2's jaunt through time and space, banal anime archetypes and all. Whenever one of the cutscenes pop up, I just go and check my email. Either that, or I pick up a book. It's mostly the battles that keep me going. I'm also a big fan of putting hats on monsters, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 has that in spades.

The dirty secret is that I've always been more fascinated by RPG battle systems than the story within the game. In many ways, a character's mechanical growth is a story in and of itself. When the game begins, your character is a scrub with a wooden sword and a few potions. By the end, they can call down comets from the heavens and instigate supernovas. That's what I call a character arc.

One of this generation's better RPGs doesn't even really have a story. Etrian Odyssey's guilds are comprised of more or less faceless characters who are defined by their classes. It's possible to change their outfits; but beyond that, you have to use your imagination. The game's only real goal is to conquer the labyrinth outside of the city.

No heroines flinging themselves off cliffs. No airborne sword fights. Just a war of attrition capped by punishing boss fights. And really, isn't that the heart of every good Japanese RPG? Isn't the story really just window dressing?

Well, mostly. Here's what I feel a good story can still contribute a few things to the overall experience:
  • It defines the look and feel of the World: Everyone still remembers the opening sequence from Final Fantasy VII. We see Aeris walk into an art deco boulevard, after which the camera pulls back to unveil Midgar in all of its steampunk-inspired glory. That one scene helps to define Final Fantasy VII in all the ways that 150 hours of Final Fantasy XIII have so far failed to do.

    That's even the case for a game like Etrian Odyssey, where the story is more or less meaningless. In the third game, the world is set on a series of islands, which in turn helps to define some of the exploration. Both the setting and the art design go a long way toward influencing an RPG. If a world is boring, then why spend a hundred hours there?

  • It can make you care about your friends and enemies: Sephiroth is one of the most popular villains in gaming history. Nowadays, he's a one-winged caricature, but there was a time that he was so cool that he almost single-handedly drove Final Fantasy VII's story forward. Fighting him wasn't just the final challenge -- it was the final reward.

    On the flipside, the cast of heroes will frequently have a strong influence on my party composition. If I like a character, I will make it my business to find a way to integrate them into the battles. By contrast, characters like Zell and Vanille never even even came within sniffing distance of being in my parties.

  • It can make the mechanics that much more interesting: Persona 3 is one of those rare RPGs that has a "good" story. It's confusing and overwrought at times, but it at least makes me care about what happens next. But more importantly, it does a masterful job of weaving the fluff into the crunchier aspects of the mechanics.
I'm not a completionist, so I can rarely be bothered to build relationships with non-player characters. I can do without the 'Infinity+1 Sword' and the other rewards those relationships typically yield. But when those relationships are the key to unlocking new and interesting monsters for my party, they get my attention. It also helps that the NPCs all have their own story arcs, and that they are at least marginally interesting.

So, at the very least, a good story can serve to highlight and enhance certain aspects of the mechanics. A good story can even rescue a mediocre battle system, which was the case with The World Ends With You. But take a gander at Final Fantasy XIII-2. It has no cohesive look, and the characters are mainly one-dimensional. The mechanics have almost nothing to do with the direction of the story. While that's a bit of a downer, it hasn't stopped me from enjoying the moments when Serah and Noel are blessedly silent.

What's funny is how much times have changed. Japanese RPGs used to be one of the genres to have any sort of story at all. Final Fantasy IV's melodrama was revolutionary for its time. Nowadays though, every big budget blockbuster has a story. In fact, the supposedly brainless first-person shooter genre relies even more heavily on story than the average Japanese RPG.

When Modern Warfare's single-player campaign comes up, what are the things we talk about? The first time we saw a nuke; the level 'No Russian,' and bizarre betrayals by allies. Shooters and action games are built around those sort of set piece moments now.

But when fans talk about Japanese RPGs now, the story almost always seems to be defined in terms of whether adds or subtracts from the overall experience. Almost everything I've heard about Xenoblade Chronicles is about how it continues the groundbreaking work of Final Fantasy XII. If the story is mentioned at all, it's usually in passing.

We live in an era in which the main contributions Japanese RPG have to make are their unique mechanics and their even more unique art design. For as silly as Final Fantasy XIII-2 can be at times, I still prefer its radical look to the somewhat lifeless -- at least in my eyes -- Skyrim. And what other genre has anything even approaching the crazy Paradigm System?

It's true that a good story can help push a Japanese RPG to the next level, but that's hardly all they have to offer. And by my reckoning, that's a good thing.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.